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Team Alchemy

In Wizards Head Coach Eddie Jordan's 'System,' Stars Are Not Golden

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2004; Page C01

Eddie Jordan is really steamed.

It's halftime of the basketball game between the Washington Wizards and the Denver Nuggets, and Jordan is so upset he can hardly speak. Kwame Brown, one of Washington's multimillionaire megastars, failed to pick up a man on defense, and when Jordan confronted him during a timeout, words flew. Jordan put Brown back into the game to see if the big man would try harder. He didn't, in Jordan's eyes.

In his office on the ground floor of MCI Center, the usually mild-mannered Jordan announces to his assistant coaches that he's steamed enough to be thinking about suspending Brown. Which he does quietly the next day -- for a practice and a game.


A contact sport: Washington Wizards Head Coach Eddie Jordan tussles with his children Jackson and Skylar when he returns to his Potomac home. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

_____From The Post_____
The Wizards defeat the Lakers, 120-116, in overtime Friday.
Coach Eddie Jordan seems to have found the right mix.
The Suns, Washington's next opponent, loves to run.

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Jordan doesn't make a big scene at the game. Neither does Brown, who later says, "I didn't say anything. I walked off."

Such flash fires happen all the time in the universe of high-stakes professional sports. But in this case, the explosive episode gets at the heart of the challenges Jordan faces with this year's Washington Wizards and maybe at the very future of the National Basketball Association.

Eddie Jordan is convinced that for his team, or any team, to win consistently, it must play as a balanced band of equals -- not as a quintet of self-centered, high-value virtuosos. It's an old saw, but Jordan has believed in it -- and embodied it -- all his life. Teamwork works. As an NBA player, Jordan wasn't a flashy shooter, he was a league-leading ball stealer and pass maker. As an NBA coach, he's not a slick-haired showman or media harlot. He believes in discipline, in devotion to the sport and, when everything else fails, in a system.

And in that system he just may have found a way to turn the perennially lackluster Wizards into a competitive team worth watching. And to finally gain recognition as a major-league coach.

Granted, it's still way too early in the 82-game season to put Eddie Jordan on a throne, but as the Wizards wend their way through their first western road trip -- playing better teams than they play in their own Eastern Conference -- they go in with a winning record. Jordan must be doing something right. A team that has traditionally lost to most of the better teams in the NBA -- and to many of the worst -- is having its best start in 30 seasons. It is one of the highest-scoring squads in the league.

"Eddie's never had the chance to be with a team and grow with it," says Houston Rockets Coach Jeff Van Gundy.

Now he's got the chance.

The Dream

In the dream, he's with his mother. He tells her that he has come back home to Washington to coach the city's professional basketball team. She smiles at him as if he's a little child. Yes, yes, Eddie, she says, that's great. Now eat your dinner and do your homework.

When he wakes in the morning, in the here and now, he's not living with his mother in Southeast Washington anymore; he's got a mansion in Potomac. He's not riding his bike all over Washington looking for a game of street hoops; he's driving a big white SUV and jetting all over the country. And he's not a little kid anymore; he's almost 50. In one of those rare instances where reality outstrips the dream, Eddie Jordan is indeed the head coach of the Washington Wizards.

His mother is right about one thing, though. He still has some homework to do.

The System

In the summer of 2003, professional basketball in this city was in tatters. The supernatural Michael Jordan had been hired and fired. Legendary coach Doug Collins had disappeared in a cloud of dust. The multimillion-dollar high school phenom Kwame Brown was in the house with a heap of hype and untested talents.

Into this basketbrawl waded new Head Coach Eddie Jordan.

Brown, for one, is glad Jordan is here. Comparing Collins and Jordan, Brown says Jordan's "style of play is more upbeat. It suits this team better."

And with him, Jordan brought along what he calls "the system."

Simply put, it's a method of playing offense that relies more on teamwork than star power. There are basic maneuvers in which players -- without the ball -- cut hard toward the basket and look for passes. Other players rotate, then do the same thing. Everybody screens, everybody cuts, everybody passes, everybody shoots. From this premeditated swirl, scoring opportunities arise.

The system suits Jordan's personality. He is a serious student of the game. He has read all the basketball books. He has sat at the feet of masters. He has picked plays and options to reflect his own positive outlook. The resulting system is designed to make all five players look good. It's an egalitarian style that hinders hot-dogs and minimizes egomaniacs. It's not the most exciting brand of basketball, but when it works, it can turn a point guard into a beast and a power forward into a ballerina.

But some players, Jordan says, "just aren't getting it."


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